Monday, October 19, 2009

The disadvantages of standards-based grading part 2

Last post I wrote about some common complaints I get from my staff about standards-based grading (SBG). For the most part, I don't consider them to be valid criticisms. The following arguments I get are arguments about the incompatibility of SBG with our current structures.

SBG doesn't work because our (middle school, high school, colleges) won't accept the grades.
In the system I use, students still receive a standard A-F grade in their subject area. The only difference is how that grade is calculated. Even if I kept it separated by standards, it doesn't seem to matter. A school district in Alaska has been using a fully standards-based system for years with great results.

Besides, my high school doesn't seem to care at all about the student grades. I teach science. The students that do well are supposed to advance to biology as a freshman while everyone else takes a class called Introduction to Physical Science which is essentially a redo of 8th grade. They used to use grades and teacher recommendations. Then they started using CST results. Last year they stuck everyone in Intro unless parents complained and moved them. Next year they're putting everyone in Bio. Clearly this is a dysfunctional high school. My point is not to complain (maybe a little) but I wanted to point out that what they do doesn't really seem to take what you do into consideration. Do what's best for your kids and don't worry about the rest.

We still pass on students that aren't proficient in each standard so grades don't really matter.
This is certainly true and perhaps there will be a day of fully standards-based schooling, like in Chugach, Alaska. However, this doesn't mean that SBG isn't a better system for student learning. Looking at a student's A-F grade from last year provides some help but not a lot. I can usually get a general sense for how the student is doing but I don't really have a way to help him or her until I get to know them better. Now imagine a standards-based report card:

Reading Comprehension


Writing Mechanics


It's very easy for me to tell that the student needs to work on writing mechanics but his or her reading comprehension is fine. I can lay out a plan early on. As an administrator I know that even though he or she might have an F in Language Arts, I don't need to put him or her into a reading intervention class. SBG communicates more clearly what a student's strengths and weaknesses are.

I don't like being different.
Ok, nobody really says that to me. That's what it sounds like though when my staff gives me reasons like, "Nobody else does it." or "I don't want to be the only math teacher using this system." Peer pressure doesn't just affect our kids.

My principal/superintendent will never go for it.
In this case you have two options: stay traditional and fight for change or go undercover. Option 1 is fairly obvious. You keep doing what you're doing but track down your principal and berate him or her with research papers and articles until they let you try it. Option 2 is what I did. Go stealth mode. Go to SBG without telling anyone. Your kids will start telling other teachers to change to the way you grade. The parents will ask them why they don't have this same system that helps little Johnny figure out what he needs to improve. Your test scores will creep up. You'll start destroying everyone on the benchmark assessments and the CST (or whatever your state has). Then, when your principal and everyone starts asking you what you're doing different you act innocent. "Hmm..well..I've tried more cooperative learning this year. Oh and I used that oh so helpful ELD matrix you left in our box. Plus I've been putting more student work on my walls like you asked me to in my last teacher eval. I really don't know. Oh wait. There's this one little thing....."

The take home message is yes, structural issues get in the way. But if you're waiting for something to be perfect before you start something, you'll never start anything. Change what you can. If you get a critical mass, someone will listen.

Part 3 later in the week.

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